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chapter 6
business and social meals

Sharing a meal with someone is an opportunity to build your relationship with that person. Most of the same customs apply to both business meals and more formal social meals. If held in the evening for six or more people, the latter events are sometimes referred to as “dinner parties”, especially if they are held at the host’s home.
The Right Start
Get off to the right start at business and social meals by adopting the following practices:
  • When you are the host, it is always a good precaution to confirm everyone’s attendance for a business meal by calling the day before to do so.
  • For business and social meals held at restaurants, make sure you arrive on time. For dinner parties held at someone’s residence, you can usually arrive up to 10 to 15 minutes after the appointed time without being regarded as late. If you are the host of a function at a restaurant, it is a good idea to be there five minutes early to greet your guests.
  • Turn off your cellphone or any other electronic devices that you are carrying and put it away as opposed to placing it on the table. Do not answer your cellphone or make any calls on it when you are attending a business or social meal. If you must make a call, excuse yourself from the table and go somewhere to do so in private.
  • Upon arriving where the event is taking place, the first thing to do is to introduce yourself and your companion (if you are bringing one) to the host. If you are the host, make sure that everyone is introduced to each other upon arriving and before sitting down at the table.
  • When it comes time to sit down for the meal, ask the host where he or she would like you and your companion to sit. Generally, if there is a guest of honor, that person is asked to sit in the chair to the right of the host with the second guest of honor, if there is one, seated immediately to the left of the host. When there is both a host and hostess and the guest of honor has a companion, the woman of the latter two sits to the right of the host and the man sits to the right of the hostess.
  • If you are the host, it is always a good idea to work out a seating plan of where you want everyone to sit beforehand. With a large group of people, sometimes it is worthwhile to place small individual seating cards at the top of each table setting with each person’s name on the card so your guests can easily find where you want them to sit.
  • Stand by your chair and let the host sit down first before sitting down yourself. If you are a man and there is a woman to be seated on your right, pull out her chair while you are standing so she can sit down and then, as she is doing so, help push her chair up to and under the table. If there is another woman on your left who is not being helped into her chair, do the same as you did for the woman on your right before sitting down yourself. While this practice should be followed at dinner parties and other formal social meals, women generally do not want to be helped into their chairs at business functions. Again, at social events, men should wait to sit down until all the women present have done so.
  • Sit down and get up from the right side of your chair in a restaurant or at any kind of formal social event. After sitting down, the first thing to do is to place your napkin on your lap after the host has done so. Plus, remember to sit up straight in your chair.
  • In the case of business meals, do not start to discuss any business matters until everyone is comfortably seated and the food has been ordered. Business cards should only be handed out when everyone first meets or at the very end just before people are leaving the table, not during the meal itself. As a general rule, it is appropriate to discuss specific business subjects at business breakfast and lunch meetings. On the other hand, business dinners are usually for the purpose of getting to know each other better. Consequently, refrain from raising business issues at such meals unless the host chooses to do so first.
  • When you are invited to attend a dinner party at someone’s home, consider having flowers delivered to the host in the morning of the event with a note saying, “Thank you for inviting me to your dinner party this evening. I’m looking forward to it.” This will be more appreciated than bringing a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates with you for the host. Just do not arrive empty-handed unless you have sent flowers beforehand.
  • If you are the host of a dinner or party at home, do not ask your guests to remove their shoes regardless of the weather outside. When necessary, provide them with a mat near your entrance door where they can wipe their shoes.
Ordering Your Meal
When it comes to ordering the meal at a restaurant, keep in mind these points:
  • If you are a guest, do not order one of the more expensive items on the menu. To be safe, you probably should order items that are close to or less than the price of the items being ordered by your host. You can, however, ask the host what dishes he or she particularly recommends you have at this restaurant and then order any of them if they appeal to you.
  • Refrain from making any special requests about how you want the food to be prepared unless it is how you want your meat or fish cooked. The other exception is to make the order-taker fully aware of any food allergies you may have if you did not have an opportunity to alert the restaurant staff to such allergies beforehand. When roasted chicken or turkey is being served, it is usually permissible for you to request either white or dark meat if you have a preference.
  • Always be courteous with everyone on the restaurant’s staff. Look your order-taker in the eye when you are giving him or her your order.
  • At business meals, remember that the main purpose of getting together relates to business, not eating. The food and what you order to eat are secondary.
  • Meals typically start with the appetizer or beginning course (often referred to as the “first course”), followed by the main course or “entrée” and then the dessert course. Sometimes, a cheese course is served either before or in place of the dessert course. Plates are not usually cleared from any course until everyone eating has finished.
  • If you are the host at a function held at a restaurant, let your guests order first, starting with the women present. Before anyone orders, you may want to ask the order-taker if there are any special dishes available on that day that are not on the menu. If you are hosting an event at a restaurant for more than eight or ten people, it is often a good idea to select the food to be served beforehand to avoid the ordering process taking too long. In doing so, you may want to offer your guests a choice of two to three alternatives for the main dish or entrée.
  • Whether you are the host at a restaurant or planning a dinner party, take into account that some of your guests may not be able to have certain foods based on their religion, ethical beliefs or food allergies. Others may be vegetarians.
  • Refrain from ordering hard-to-eat, potentially messy dishes such as spaghetti or spareribs.
The Buffet Table
  • The food at some meals, including in certain restaurants, is served “buffet-style”, in which case it is not necessary to order individual items of food beforehand. Sometimes, however, you will be given a choice of either using the buffet or ordering separately. Follow the lead of the host in this regard.
  • With a buffet (pronounced “boo-fay”), you go to a long table to serve yourself from various alternative dishes, often ranging from starters and salads through to main dishes and desserts. There are also breakfast buffets. Another word for a buffet is “smorgasbord”.
  • At restaurants, it is permissible to go and look over what is being offered on the buffet table before deciding whether to have the buffet or order your food separately.

During the Meal
Here are some suggestions for making a good impression during the meal:
  • Watch what the host does. Sometimes, the host will start the meal by asking someone to say “grace” or bless the food you are about to eat. Bow your head slightly and keep quiet and still while grace or a blessing is being said. Do not eat or drink anything until afterwards.
  • With a group of guests, the guest of honor should be served first, then the remainder of the guests counterclockwise, and the host last.
  • Do not begin to drink your wine or eat any course of food until the host has started to do so, unless the host tells you not to wait to start as your food may be getting cold. If there is a guest of honor, wait until that person starts before you do so.
  • When a plate of food is passed to you, offer it to the person on your left before helping yourself to the food. The same applies if a bottle of wine is passed to you. After you have helped yourself, food and drinks are usually passed to the right.
  • If you are served something that you do not like to eat, such as a particular vegetable, refrain from saying anything about it. As you are eating, move it around a bit on your plate so it is not so obvious that you are leaving it uneaten.
  • Try to maintain the same pace of eating as the others at your table. You do not want to appear as if you are wolfing down your food or are always the last one eating when everyone else is finished.
  • Attempt to divide your attention between the people seated on either side of you. Converse with both of them for about an equal amount of time. It is rude to be perceived as ignoring one of them.
Toasting and Alcohol
Remember the following regarding toasting and alcohol:
  • At any time during the course of the meal, the host may propose that everyone drink a toast to someone or something. Do not raise your glass, drink or stand up if the toast is being made to you. If it is, respond afterwards by proposing a toast of your own, thanking the host and complimenting him or her on some positive aspect of the event. If no one has made such a toast throughout the evening, it is often a good idea for you to do so toward the end of the meal. Toasts should be kept brief and punchy. If it is a formal event, the toaster should stand up to give the toast.
  • In toasting, try to get everyone’s attention by saying in a firm and somewhat loud voice, “I would like to propose a toast to our host and hostess for this wonderful dinner and evening” or “I would like to propose a toast to Jim in recognition of the fabulous job he did on this project.” Then, make eye contact with the person to whom you are addressing the toast, raise your wineglass in the direction of that individual, and gently clink the rim of your wineglasses with those being held up by the other guests within your reach. After everyone has clinked glasses, take just a sip, put down your glass, and resume eating or what you were doing before.
  • The same steps apply for toasting if you are drinking any type of alcohol. When you do not have wine or another alcoholic drink, it is generally permissible to toast with your water glass.
  • It is not necessary for everyone to clink their glasses together when a toast is made if it requires leaning far across the table to do so.
  • For casual occasions, the toast, “Here’s to good health for all of us and our families” is always welcomed by any group.
  • By far the most common mistake made at business meals and social functions is drinking too much liquor or wine. Always be careful to limit your alcoholic consumption and know when you should switch to drinking just water or a soft drink. More people, both men and women, have made a fool of themselves at social and professional events by drinking too much than by doing anything else. Also, do not drink beer from a bottle unless it is an extremely casual event.
  • At business meals, do not order an alcoholic beverage unless your host is going to do so. If you are meeting in a different country, try to find out beforehand what the customs are regarding drinking and toasting. In Western Europe, beer and wine are often served at business lunches. The further you go into Eastern Europe, the more liquor is likely to be a part of any business meeting. In China, Japan and South Korea, only fill the glasses of others, never your own. To avoid offending anyone, if you don’t want to drink anything alcoholic, you always have the option of ordering a drink and leaving it standing. Conversely, if you are the host, never insist that your guests must have something alcoholic to drink.
  • When you are the host of any kind of event or function where alcohol is served, you have a responsibility to arrange for a taxi or other transportation for anyone leaving who may be intoxicated, as opposed to letting the person drive home in his or her own vehicle.
At the End
After the last course, follow these customs:
  • When everyone has finished eating and drinking at the end of the meal, remove your napkin from your lap and place it neatly on the table to the left of your place setting, never on top of a plate. You do not have to refold your napkin.
  • The check should be paid by the host regardless of gender. On the other hand, it is also appropriate for the individual whose company most benefits from the business relationship to offer to pay. If you have invited someone to a restaurant meal, you are usually expected to pay the check but the other party may offer to split the cost of the check and tip, particularly if the two of you are friends or equals in terms of business position.
  • At the end of the meal, wait to get up from the table until the host does. If you have a valid reason for needing to leave a business or social function early, privately explain the situation to the host before the event starts so you have his or her “permission” to do so. As you are getting up to go, quietly say to the people on either side of you, “I’m sorry but I have to leave early. Please forgive me.”
  • Always remember to thank your host for inviting you when you leave a business or social function.
Whenever you are at a social or professional event and are stumped about what to do in a particular situation, look around to see how everyone else is acting and conduct yourself accordingly. There are bound to be times when you are uncertain how to behave. Just carry on and do not let yourself get flustered or make a big deal about it. If anything, you are usually best under these circumstances to err on the cautious side.
I like to follow a routine of breaking up my day by having a shower and shave after work before going out or having dinner in the evening. Often, I also have a nap beforehand, especially when I am traveling, so that the combination of the nap, shower and shave makes me fully refreshed and re-energized to get the maximum enjoyment out of the evening and any business or social function I am attending. Develop your own technique for unplugging from work and rejuvenating yourself before going out in the evening.
Chapter 7, Restaurants, contains more information on how to conduct yourself in restaurants, including tipping. Chapter 8, Wine, covers ordering wine in restaurants. Chapter 9, Table Manners, describes recommended table manners for you to adopt at meals.

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